My brother is waiting for me in the cold; didn’t bother him then, doesn’t bother him now, even with the wind snatching billowing steam from right under my nose. Me? I get the cold, and the cold gets me. The fingertips that I don’t feel against my gloves, even when clenched into fists and pressed into trouser pockets; that familiar ache in the knee I popped in my twenties, singing to me, “Storm’s comin’, storm’s a’comin’ ”. We haven’t had a good night out, haven’t had a good anything since the fiasco at Holborn Station. What a mess that was.
Bill, he’s got that shit-eating grin on his face. It’s Cheshire cat wide, salesman earnest and razorblade sharp. On a lark, we both bought the loudest, ugliest Hawaiian shirts for a previous pub crawl. Tropical bingo: coconut trees, pineapples, sunsets, surfboards and beaches. The kind of shirt that ruddy faced teenagers in their souped up import cars can’t help but slow down to heckle.
We don’t hug, William Pennyfeather and I, there’s a gap there, a chasm of time, space; wrongs, real and imagined; and the scar tissue, puffed and red, plastering over old wounds. “Been a while, Bobby-boy.” Like he wasn’t two years younger. And it’s still there, under those last few detritus years, a bedrock of blood and brotherhood. “Hey back at you,” I say.
“You didn’t wear the shirt. Anyway, this crawl’s gonna be special. Just three pubs and a fourth if we do things right.”
“Getting soft, Bill?”
“Not at all and at least I still fit into this shirt. There’s a method to the madness, it has to be these three pubs. They’re all haunted. The crawl is going to be—”
“Don’t say it, Bill.” Wasn’t cool when we could barely manage the sum total of a full beard and moustache between us, isn’t cool when we’re both the wrong side of thirty, freezing our arses off in a parking lot on a Friday night while the world sleazes on by in tinted headlights, fishnet stockings and the doppler sound of the latest pop hit ringtones.
The Hound and the Stag, The Unmaking Boy
The first pub’s an antique, blue plaque on the side wall. For all that, there’s a subtle flavour of desperation; workman’s sweat and the dregs of paychecks wafting from the countertop, the smell marinating old wood in a sous vide a century in the making. Hoary men with dirty fingernails throng the counter, but it’s the pre-teen boy nursing an outsized pint glass that we sit with.
“Bugger off, you two, and leave an old ghost in peace,” says the boy, turning his hollowed out gaze on us. The apertures on his head bleed inwards to nothingness, the fathomless depths in the pits of his eyes and gaping maw radiating a network of questing cracks, as though his pale face was of the finest porcelain, unmade and glued together once more.
“We’re off the clock, as you can see,” says my brother. “The Work can wait.” The Work, that’s what Mum called it, a reverent pause always turning the simple word into something more; between calling and curse, like all good endeavours. The eyeless, lipless thing in front of us snorted, and raised his glass of spider webs and dust.
“You’re not dressed for your death,” I tell the boy after Bill has left to get us the first drinks of the evening.
“No,” says the boy, wiping a smear of grey across his pallor with the sleeve of his football jersey, Liverpool F.C., Number 7. Suárez had only been signed in 2010. “Nothing to watch here but cricket and footie. I like to stay up to date.” He pauses to whistle at a trio of women, striding in a clatter of heels and stretched nylon; more girls than women, and certainly underaged. One of them, more sensitive than most, rubbed the gooseflesh from her forearm. “You stay the same for two hundred years, and you’d wish you were dead,” he finishes.
White foam crests the side of a sweating pint glass, spilling down the side in a lazy wave. “Oops,” says Bill, running a finger up glass and into his mouth. Bubbles gasp into the warm pub air, starting to smell of the press of the crowd, now that dinner is over. A little like cheap perfume, a little like cheap aftershave, a little like cheap everything. The beer is pure gold and it drowns out the scent of the place, and that alone is worth its price.
The unmaking boy scratches a perfect white cheek, like scraping knives over fine china. Something catches on his fingernail and he peels off a sliver of his face with the sound of an egg hatching, placing the tiny triangle on the table, all sharp angles. “We all have our hell waiting; some of us go to meet it, some of us carry it with us.” He says this to me, popping the flake back into his mouth, staring me down; unmaking and remaking himself, fighting the march of entropy.
“You lads here just to take up my space, or are we going to fight or what?” asks the boy with no eyes, draining the dregs of his glass and pushing it off the table. There is no smash, nothing hits the floor. Fighting was sometimes part of the Work, a pastime that consumed Bill and I for at least the decade after Mum left the family business to us. Not a business at all, really. You’d need to make money off a business. Bill and I finish our drinks.
That’s the Work, said the Mistress Pennyfeather.
Helping ghosts? asked Bill, still with his hair in the curls of his youth, voice an octave higher than that of the man he would be.
We should kill them, that’s what the word means right? Exorcism? To drive out? I said, chasing down Bill’s question.
Oh, you two, said the Mistress Pennyfeather, looking down at us with her wide eyes, with flecks of gold across the pupils that you could just see when the light caught them. What would it take, to cling to this plane, to the material when everything that was material about you is lost? A violence has been done to them, would you layer another atop? So eager to take the easy way out of everything, you boys, she said and then she laughed.
But some ghosts don’t want help.
Wetherspoons: The Weavers
“Is that why you set this up, Bill? Want me back working?”
“You don’t miss the Work?”
“That’s not what I asked.”
He pushes the glass doors to the local Wetherspoons open, letting frigid air rush past us, the street exhaling into the beer stained atmosphere of the pub microcosm. The press of the crowd is there, smelling like longing, looking like a high street clothes commercial and roaring like the ocean. Even in the maelstrom, there’s calm, if you know where to look. Calm in the table in the corner that no one occupies for long. It’s taken, the distressed interlopers will say to themselves. And it is. William Pennyfeather is an exorcist worth his weight in salt, and he knows just how to pick them. The couple hide from the throng, choosing not to show themselves. A ghost is always alone in a crowd, if they so wish.
Some ghosts fade like old photographs, smearing out as the will to give form to memory dissolves; sublimating like ice on a griddle. Others change. Like the ones in front of us, standing behind a bar table piled high with bottles of varying sizes, each filled with the same clear liquor. Vodka perhaps, or gin, ghosts got to choose their own poison and this pair is pounding shots.
The couple themselves are hard to look at, fully nude and denuded. Not an ounce of desire here, the couple is joined from ankle to cheek; they’d painstakingly flayed the skin from their spectral flesh, one thin strip at a time; and, working together, braided the bloodied strips into a weave that bound them, conjoined for as long as their will lasted. They spoke one at a time, for the weave tugged forcefully on the skinned cheek of the other when one spoke, a fitting afterlife, perhaps, for a couple that spent more time talking above than at one another.
“The Pennyfeather brothers, the owners must have spared no expense!” says the man. The woman waits for him to finish, upends her shot glass and slams it onto the table.
“But not the Mistress Pennyfeather, too good is she for the likes of us.” The woman caresses the word mistress with her tongue and then spits it out hard like a fruit seed.
“Our mother is dead,” I say, flat and neutral, pushing the words out in a rush before pain can snatch at them. “I’ll get drinks,” says Bill, squeezing through the crowd and leaving me with the ghosts.
“A shame,” says the man. “We would very much have liked to meet her. Our condolences for your loss. We also heard about Holborn. You are your mother’s sons, but you are not her.”
Mouths without end, snapping and tearing into themselves, uroboros like, all consuming. A thousand mouths but one scream, I didn’t recognize the voice, until I remembered to breathe. It stopped.
Bill shakes me back to the here and now. He has our drinks; the beer is flat, the froth thinned out, in dismay in the plastic prison it finds itself escaping. Plastic pint glasses, no way for a beer to die.
“A toast then, toast to the Mistress Pennyfeather,” says the male half, turning glass bottles this way and that, searching for something. “My love, where is the Christmas argument from ’00?”
“Too bland for the Brothers Pennyfeather. Perhaps Sarah ’97?”
“I told you not to name her before the operation.”
“And if I had not, would it be quite bitter enough for this occasion?”
The man nods, the braided flesh forcing his partner to nod along with him and pours two generous measures out. He looks to me with his one good eye, the other staring lidless and dry. I raise the sad pint rather than drink of their vintage. The couple shrugs, the motion travelling sinuously from bony shoulder to raw flesh and back again.
“To absent mothers and present wives, much do we wish it were the other way,” says the man. The woman giggles.
“Bruce is doing well, and sends his regards,” says my brother, peering at me over the rim of his glass. There’s a moment of clarity. The world takes a breath; the beer pauses, tepid and flat on my tongue. I wipe my lips with the back of my hand, a gesture both uncouth and unnecessary, only so that I can get something in between the venom I want to spit out and the world at large.
The couple, as estranged as they had been in their former lives, develop a sudden but consuming interest in their bottles. Bill, with the social awareness of a ninety kilogram puppy, doubles down. “You should call him up some time.”
Let’s call the first one a fluke, a misplaced hit. The second, well the second one implies intent. Implies planning. If my ex is no longer out of bounds, then I’m guessing kids aren’t either.
“Maybe you want to check in on Esther before calling me out.” Bill knows that’s coming sooner or later, he plays the ex card and the gloves are off, kids aren’t off limits.
“You know Marsha doesn’t want me around, wants the kiddo to move on.” He eyes me over the rim of his glass, words flat and controlled.
That’s brotherhood, carefully placed landmines under the green spaces between us. Thirty years of watching each other lay each specific pressure-triggered explosive, knowing exactly where each fucking mine is and yet we always charted our conversations straight over them.
His plastic cup hits the table and topples, dribbling lager onto the wood. “Night’s young. We have places to go yet.” He’s off before I’m even standing. The indentations in my own cup are the only record of our conversation. The woman ghost leans forward, dragging her mate with her, touches her fingertip to my cheek and returns it to her lips.
“A most excellent vintage, anger aged just right, and a thread of smoky bitterness to cut the flavour just the way we like. You should keep it, you never know when you’ll want to savour it next.”
At least I know what the couple is drinking.
It’s a gift, said the Mistress Pennyfeather, answering my brother. A talent, like music or painting or sculpture.
So we get to be famous? asked Bill.
If you live well, if you do the Work well, maybe. The Brothers Pennyfeather, I like the sound of that, Mother said.
Don’t we even get to keep our father’s name like the other boys in school? I asked, still stung by playground taunts.
You two are witch-born, so you will take my name. The strong will think twice, the weak will break upon it like waves on rock. Names aren’t important, you boys just take care of each other, no one will do that after I’m gone. You have a choice, my sons, she says, holding each of our hands, squeezing hard enough to press palms bloodless. Being powerful is not a choice, being witch-born is not a choice.
What’s the choice then? I asked.
Don’t be a dick, she said.
The Red Room: The Woman Whose Name Has Been Said For The Last Time
The crowd I press through is mindless, a single squirming organism, with a thousand flailing limbs, a thousand gibbering mouths and a thousand, thousand eyes, both flesh and electronic. A line snakes down the side of the building to the next place. It’s the sort of place where the bouncers wear suits instead of UFC t-shirts, but still sport necks as thick as my thigh. Bill’s got some pull here, the muscle at the door lets us in ahead of the queue. Stares drill holes in my back as I chase my brother out of the cold.
Before we find the next ghost, I catch up with him at the bar. He’s already gotten two beers, dark glass pearling with condensation, chi chi line art on the label, French name but brewed nowhere more exotic than Kent.
“Is this about Holborn?”
“A pub crawl isn’t about the destination, it’s about the journey. Holborn was a shitshow, we were due one anyway. Too confident, too cocky.”
Blood that’s mine, blood that wasn’t mine. There’s something in the dark of the station, the dark of the station was something. Bill was there somewhere; somewhere was nowhere in the dark and the dark had teeth.
“Forget Holborn. Forget your kid. Let’s talk about Mum, shall we?” I ask, no longer content to steer the conversation through safe waters.
“Not yet, we’re here to drink with a ghost, right?”
“Screw this pub crawl, we don’t talk since Holborn and this is all we do?”
“Get out, see the ghosts, it’s sort of like the Work.”
“Well you messed up, there’s no ghost here.”
The Red Room isn’t full, it’s just the kind of place that prefers to keep people waiting. The Mistress Pennyfeather had bequeathed us more than a name; witches came in assorted sizes, and hers was a medium in talent and a largeness of heart. Caring was the bigger curse of the two; seeing ghosts, in their myriad twisted forms, never ceased to take a toll. Yet I couldn’t see the haunting of this bar. Even ghosts avoid a place that charges ten pounds for bottled water.
Except there is a patch which my eyes slide off, the visual equivalent of oily ground. Focusing brings a woman who is greying at the temples/drop dead gorgeous/too young to be in those heels. I frown, the woman leaves no impression on my mind, only that she’s wearing an evening gown, scarlet as the name of our pub/an office worker’s armour, grey pantsuit with a good cut/who let her out of her house in her pyjamas.
“What’s with this one?” I ask my brother.
“You know they say a person dies twice, once when you stop breathing and once—”
“When your name is spoken for the last time.”
“If a tree falls down in the forest and nobody updates its Facebook status, does it make a sound?”
The woman raised her bottle, and I catch a whiff of what’s inside: a taste of the sound of a sigh, the aroma of the shuddering exhalation of an orgasm. She gives me a wink/smile/grimace.
“Is this what we’re here for? A boy who can’t let go, lovers who hate each other, a woman who doesn’t know she’s dead?”
“How about a man who doesn’t know he’s alive?” says my brother. He leaves, his beer unfinished.
The Mistress Pennyfeather, speaker to the dead, was herself dying. Witches traded with death daily, and sooner or later the stink of it soaked them through. When it came in less civilised times, it was slow and cruel; in flames underfoot, interment, weighted stones. Death now came slower and no less cruel, with pain prolonged, with hearts and lungs worked by pump and hose.
Bill hadn’t been there for some time. It was me, watching Mum melt into the sheets, very Wizard of Oz, save it she wasn’t melting from the outside.
Lucidity was a luxury, tidal in nature, dancing counterpoint to the pain, controlled by little white moons in plastic cups after every meal. Then it was two moons, three moons, then a silver spike right into the blood. I watched her die by parts, I watched her alone.
Bill wasn’t there. Bill wasn’t there.
The Last Free House: The Mistress Pennyfeather
We’re back on the street, past the yammering queue, past customers glowing orange under heaters, glistening like rotisserie chickens. Bill doesn’t say a word, he’s intent on looking for our next stop, clearly lost in the lanes that wind tighter and tighter, posters curling off walls, advertisement scales moulting to show last season’s skin underneath. My brother is lost, stopping in front of a wall and looking this way and that.
The fight was a long time coming, maybe since Holborn, but like quake and eruption alike, there were larger things further down grating on each other. It’s a dance that we’ve had little opportunity to practice, and so it is ugly, ungainly, undignified. I’ve not found a better opening than this: throwing my elbow back and giving him a good one across the chin.
For once in our lives, we miss that first step, I swing through his face and stumble straight into him and smash into the wall. It’s never comfortable for person and ghost to occupy the same space, a violation of the most intimate sort, even if we are brothers.
“So you’ll manifest yourself to get us beer but not for a fight?” I ask my brother.
“I’m not about to let you sucker punch me, Bob. Is it always going to be a fight?” he asks back.
Of course it is. It’s been fights before Mum, it’s been fights after. It’s been fights all the way up to Holborn station. Not so much since then.
“You’ve dragged me all over London, you throw me at a gaggle of ghosts, we barely speak all night. And now you’re lost, great night, Bill, great night.”
“It’s about to get better, if you’re not going to call on your gift to punch me.”
I ball my fists in my pockets, holding pent up tension. Then I let it all go, both the anger and the witch-gift our mum left us, loosening my hands and leaving a sigh to linger white on the air in front of me. He opens a door next to me, a door where there had once been bare wall.
“There are places with ghosts, and then there are ghost places. Welcome to the Last Free House.”
The segue from the darkness of midnight to the brightness of high noon leaves me blinking. The pub is empty, it’s old-school, a family place, with worn counter seating, red PVC, lovingly patched. Booths in the back for groups, high backed leather. Dark wood, with water stain rings bleached where customers sat while drinks once grew warm. At the edge of hearing, the echoes of happy chatter, soft; as though from the next room. There are smells here, woven into the scent of the room; a Sunday roast, dripping with gravy, crisped golden potatoes leaking steam.
Behind the ghost sounds and the spectral smells, there is something else, something familiar. I walk up the row of booths in alcoves, making my way to the last, Bob trailing behind. It’s the hiss of ventilators I remember, the metronome beat of the ECG, measuring out the music of the heart. Mum. The Mistress Pennyfeather.
Or at least, what’s left of the Mistress Pennyfeather. There’s a form, swaddled under blankets, chest rising and falling with ventilator bellows, a nesting bundle of wires and needles so dense around a breathing mask that no skin is visible, the only indication of the form there is the dandelion burst of sparse white hair on the hospital pillow. Beyond the things that pounce in the dark, there’s a fear of the creeping inevitable. Not a horror movie fear, dissipating between jumps. This one soaks through skin, through flesh, nestling in the dark redness of marrow. There when you wake, there when you exhale. After a while, it’s your only friend.
“Hello boys,” says Mum, and it’s not her voice of my youth, rich and deep, as ready to boom with thundering laughter or flash with the lightning of a sharp comment. Her voice now is weak, patchy like an out of reach radio station, wheezing from the machine and not her throat. I lay my hand on the form under the blankets, it gives all the way to the thin hospital mattress, inflating again like a balloon when the machines breath into it.
“Hello Mum,” my brother and I say at the same time and it’s the first thing we’ve done together in years.
“It’s nice of you to visit, maybe it would have been better when I was still alive. How’s Marsha?”
“We split up when you were ill,” Bill says, each word a probing step on thin ice, testing with a little more weight.
“You were cheating on her,” I say, ten again and snitching on Bill.
“And what happened to Bruce?” asks the Mistress Pennyfeather, not moving an inch but still I can feel her gaze on me, the same midday glare.
“Broke up, moved on,” I mumble, not meeting my mother’s not-gaze.
“He was sick, you couldn’t bear to go through it again.” Mum’s mechanical voice has no tone, no inflection, save the wheeze of bellows and the hiss of escaping air, and yet she’s still admonishing me. “You haven’t moved on. Not from me, not from Bruce. Not from Holborn.”
Bill took the hit for me. I would have done the same for him, we’ve always jumped in front of the other. It’s only luck of the draw that I was the one behind and not the other way around. That’s the unfairness of it.
“Is this why you brought me here, Bill?” I turn on my brother. “You want me back to the Work? On our mother?”
The breathing machine stutters, pump clicking, tube shuddering. It’s only Bill’s indifference that lets me interpret the spasms for what they are: Mum is laughing. “Oh Bob, my boy. Always the hero of your own story, always the centre of your own tragedy.”
“Why haunt me then?” This pub crawl has taken a turn, I’m that cartoon coyote, legs pumping in circles on thin air over a cliff, waiting for gravity to remember who it’s left behind. I’m doing fine. I’ve got stuff I can run, I’m witch-born after all, and those skills are still worth money.
“Let me tell you something about ghosts, my boy,” says the Mistress Pennyfeather. “We’re dead. We’ve had our time, we’re moving on. Your brother isn’t haunting you. I’m not haunting you.”
Of course, they weren’t. The Mistress Pennyfeather, exorcist extraordinaire, would have better things to do, even when her time on this plane was done. William Pennyfeather, best friend, exorcist, brother, would have done far worse if he were haunting me.
“And the pub crawl?” This to my brother.
“The Last Free House isn’t for the living, even one as gifted as you cannot see the other guests. We had to take the scenic route,” says Bill.
Echoes of footsteps, smatterings of conversations, food and love just beyond my touch. Not so different from life without Mum and Bill; happiness in antiphase. Living is for the room next door, not for me.
Ghosts are liminal things, neither truly living or dead. Ghosts have been done a violence, Mum said. Violence they wore: the boy, unmaking and remaking himself, winding down; the lovers, binding and weaving; the woman without a name, flitting from state to state, fluttering moth-like. In-between, not moving on. Just like me. I wasn’t brought to the Last Free House to heal others, very much the opposite.
“I think he gets it,” says Mum from her place on the bed.
I take a seat in the booth next to my mother, I’m not sure my legs will bear my weight. Bill sits next to me. “So what’s next,” I ask him.
“Like Mum said, you always have to choose. Life goes on,” he replies, managing to conjure up, magically quick, the last beers of the night. And damn if he didn’t get the good stuff. The best beer you’ve ever had, so smooth it can’t be real, froth thicker and creamier than steamed milk, cold enough to numb your fingers.
“It isn’t the same anymore.” No matter how I much I forgot myself, or bound myself to the things that caused me the most pain, or carried my hell along with me.
Bill nods, and there is weariness in that gesture, even though ghosts no longer feel the lethargy of the flesh. “You know what they say, you can’t step in the same river twice. But you can take care not to piss upstream of folks you know.”
“That’s all we ever do, mess things up for those that we love. We deal with death, it stains us, we bring it home and it doesn’t wash off. In time, it bleeds over all those around us.” I snort. “To think we used to be the best at the Work.”
“Are. You still are. Of all people you should know what comes after, Bob.”
“So why haven’t you and Mum moved on?”
“That’s not the question we’re asking here now, is it?”
“Then why Mum?”
“Mostly because you wouldn’t have listened if it was just me. You know, ghosts are in-between things, like that cat that’s not here nor there. The observer changes things, defines things. Defines the observer’s pain. What was Mum?”
“I was never as strong as you, Bob. I saw her, but I couldn’t stay to the end. I think she knew that. What I want to know is, how do you see me? Holborn?”
To that, I have to raise my glass.
“Same asshole brother as always.”
Glass meets glass and our knuckles brush, mine still cold from evening chill, his ever warm. Alive, in his own way.
“I miss you too.”